Afghanistan star is currently the joint-highest wicket-taker at the Hundred
Khan runs in with Manchester Originals flying at 70 for 1 off 40 balls in a must-win game for Rockets, with Phil Salt, his Sussex and Adelaide Strikers team-mate and one of his best friends in cricket, in his sights. Khan’s first ball is a low full toss towards leg stump, and Salt gets down to sweep, top-edging a catch straight to Samit Patel at short fine leg.
There is no exuberant celebration. Instead, Khan smiles wryly, winking at Lewis Gregory and then bumping fists. Two balls later, Colin Ackermann attempts a sweep and is struck on the shoulder by a wicked googly, which gets him lbw. Khan roars out an appeal, then high-fives Tom Moores with his tongue sticking out to the side. The usual grin is missing.
Khan takes a superb running catch in the next set of five, then yorks Carlos Brathwaite with a quicker one to take his third wicket in his first six balls. Originals have lost five wickets for four runs, and Khan is involved in all of them. His trademark aeroplane celebration comes out before he is mobbed by his team-mates. He has turned the game on its head in the space of ten minutes.
The wickets were Khan’s 381st, 382nd and 383rd in his T20 career, nudging him back into fifth in the all-time list, and the sacrifices he has made to become the world’s best spinner in the format are immense. He told the Observer before this tournament that he has spent 25 days at home in the last five years, and he has lost both of his parents in the last three. “I don’t get enough time to be with the family but at the same time it is the start of my career so I have to struggle,” he said.
His performances over the last three weeks – which have put him joint-top of the Hundred’s wicket-taking charts – have come within a wider context. He has posted on social media several times about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, usually with a simple message: “Don’t leave us in chaos. Stop killing Afghans and destroying Afghanistan.”
On Sunday, his tweet after the Taliban seized Kabul by force, leading the president and thousands of foreign nationals to flee, was particularly straightforward: “Peace,” followed by three praying emojis and three Afghan flags. Last month, he addressed the situation by saying: “As a player it makes you super sad. It hurts a lot, but at the same time we are just trying our best to do something special in the field to make [people at home] happy.”
Patel, his team-mate, acknowledged that Khan had been “subdued” in comparison to his usual exuberant self. “He wasn’t as upbeat as normal, and that’s understandable,” he said. “It’s so fresh and we had the game to concentrate on, which was a good distraction for him. He tried to put in a match-winning performance and that comes from his inner self.
“For Rashid to turn up and put on a performance like this under the pressure that he is currently under.. it’s probably one of the most heartwarming stories of the Hundred”
“He’s 100% committed in any game that he plays. I’ve been lucky enough to play franchise cricket with him and I know that you cannot fault Rashid Khan – he’s an absolute gem to have in any team, in all aspects. The way he plays his cricket is full on and that’s a credit to Rash. He’s a world-class performer.”
“There’s a lot of things that are happening at home,” Kevin Pietersen said on Sky Sports during the innings break. “We had a long chat here on the boundary talking about it and he’s worried: he can’t get his family out of Afghanistan and there’s a lot of things happening for him.
“For him to turn up and put on a performance like this under the pressure that he is currently under… for him to be able to forget that stuff and navigate his story and continue the momentum that he has – I think that’s probably one of the most heart-warming stories of this Hundred so far.”
Khan is ubiquitous in T20 cricket worldwide: you can flick on any game from any league worldwide and there is every chance that he will be playing, celebrating, or slicing helicopter shots for six over point. Nobody has played as many games as him in the format since his debut in 2015 and nobody has taken as many wickets.
The result is that we take this phenomenon for granted. Khan is a 22-year-old Afghan, bowling quick legspin and hitting sixes everywhere from Adelaide to Abu Dhabi and from Trent Bridge to Trinidad. He has been a trailblazer for cricketers from his nation to the extent that every team in the world wants him to play for them.
His life and his career have unfolded with the constant backdrop of bloodshed and pain at home, at a time when most people have associated the word ‘Afghanistan’ with a war rather than a country. It is a credit to Khan that even with the backdrop of political turmoil and internal conflict, many now associate it with him, too.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98